All Blacks have succession plan to replace old guard

LONDON (AP) Players come and go, and yet the All Blacks keep winning.

After they won the Rugby World Cup at home in 2011, they made it a goal to embrace their world champion status, live up to it each year, and win it again.

The All Blacks pulled it off, culminating the greatest four-year cycle between World Cups – including the first perfect season in the professional era, in 2013 – with the first successful defense of the Webb Ellis Cup, and only three defeats.

And just as they did in 2012, they will hit the ground running in 2016.

The 34-17 victory over Australia in the final on Saturday was expected to be the last sight in a black jersey of Keven Mealamu, captain Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith. Tony Woodock retired during the tournament after tearing a hamstring, and Ben Franks and Colin Slade were moving on. All were either retiring or going to foreign clubs, taking with them nearly 800 caps of experience.

That knowhow and leadership, let alone experience, will be missed badly, but New Zealand prepared for this eventuality almost as soon as the celebrations died down after the 2011 World Cup.

This was not common. Any team can be successful, but only the great ones can lay out succession plans while staying on top.

Coach Steve Hansen and most of his staff are in place for two more years, and if, as expected, McCaw calls it a day, his heirs are known. No. 8 Kieran Read will take over as captain, having already led nine times, and Sam Cane was ready to wear the No. 7 jersey. His standing within the team was underlined when he was given the captaincy for the first time in this World Cup, against Namibia.

Cane, who has been McCaw’s understudy for three years, laughed on Sunday when he was told he might be the only New Zealander looking forward to McCaw’s retirement. He said he and McCaw had joked about replacing him, but he wasn’t taking anything for granted until McCaw made it official.

”We work hard to keep the team rejuvenated,” assistant coach Ian Foster said.

There’s attrition not only from injuries and loss of form, but losing players to well-heeled northern hemisphere clubs. They counter the losses by staying on top of what’s happening beneath them in Super Rugby, the under-20s, and the provinces. ”They do a heck of a job developing players,” Foster said.

After the last World Cup, the All Blacks changed 30 to 40 percent of the team very quickly. That’s still obvious in this World Cup squad, nine of whom made their debut in 2012, including regulars in key positions such as hooker Dane Coles, lock Brodie Retallick, scrumhalf Aaron Smith, and winger Julian Savea.

They were among 18 of the 32-man squad at their first World Cup, including Woodcock’s replacement, Joe Moody, who started in the final.

Carter may be the least missed of all those departing, as New Zealand has another three brilliant flyhalves: Beauden Barrett, who came to the World Cup, Aaron Cruden, who was injured, and Lima Sopoaga, who impressed in a starting debut against South Africa in July.

Cruden was the All Blacks’ regular flyhalf while Carter dealt with injuries in 2013-14, but even if he hadn’t ruptured ligaments in his left knee in April, he would likely have been the backup to Carter in the World Cup, Foster said. Cruden would have complicated selection thinking, Foster added, but Carter was their No. 10 for the tournament, after proving against Australia at Eden Park in August that he could still deliver.

Nonu and Conrad Smith, the most experienced midfield partnership in test rugby, will be less easily replaced, Foster acknowledged. He mentioned Malakai Fekitoa, Ryan Crotty, and Sonny Bill Williams when he returns from the New Zealand Sevens team, but new centers will take time to find and gel.

”It’s not going to be the same, it’s going to be different, but different isn’t necessarily bad,” Foster said.

The All Blacks should have a solid core to defend the title in Japan in four years.

A possible lineup for the first of three home tests against Wales next June could be: Ben Smith, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Malakai Fekitoa, Charlie Ngatai, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (captain), Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett.

They’re relatively young, with around 650 caps, more than most teams put out at this World Cup.

”Exciting times are ahead,” Cane said.